Category Archives: books

Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds – Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century (Dey St.)

When I picked up my first issues of the British weekly music magazine Melody Maker back in the early 1970s, the glam rock movement was in full swing. It seemed like every issue had a cover photo, feature story or interview relating to somebody involved with glam. There was Marc Bolan (T. Rex), David Bowie, The Sweet and many others catching the attention of the press and ears of the music fans.

On this side of the pond, there seemed to be substantially less interest in what was known as “glitter” over here.  However, in the Windsor/Detroit area, I did manage to hear quite a bit of music from the likes of Bolan, Bowie and eventually Roxy Music, Sparks etc…

Approaching 700 pages in length, Simon Reynolds’ book attempts to relate the context of the early group of artists who were at the forefront of glam and also to continue the story beyond its seemingly finite existence.

He begins in the logical place with Marc Bolan and fleshes out his early career and the lead-up to his place as a leader of the pack. The same holds true of Bowie’s story in the next chapter.

As one would expect, an analysis of the social aspects of this fad/trend are examined in depth. That includes a deep look into facets of androgyny and dandyism and their context in society over the years. These often stretch back to references from the 19th century and its attitude towards social issues. While initially interesting, these details often get caught up in a feedback loop of cleverness which can get exhausting.

The story continues in the US with the introduction of Alice Cooper to the mix. His contribution included his outrageous stage act which incorporated such aspects as a guillotine and electric chair. His work was more towards the shock rock than glam rock aspect of music.

Meanwhile, the UK added more stars to their glam roster with the entry of such artists as Slade, The Sweet and Gary Glitter. Joining them was an American in the form of ex-Detroit native Suzi Quatro. While these artists did have some following in on this side of the Atlantic, it still remained quite small. The Sweet failed to make any inroads up until the time of their hits Ballroom Blitz and Fox on the Run. Even the Detroit radio stations seemed to show little interest in the fact that Suzi Quatro was becoming a big star in England. Most people would have likely not heard her name until she started making appearances on the popular TV show Happy Days.

Eventually, the trio of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop started to make some waves. Along with them came Mott the Hoople. At this point in time, Bowie was attempting to get some exposure for these other artists on the back of his own fame as a producer (Reed, The Stooges)  or songwriter (All the Young Dudes).

Roxy Music seemed to appear out of nowhere with a strange vision of the past mixed with scenes from the future. Their sound was like no other at the time and it caught people’s ears with it’s skewed mash-up of styles that by all reason should not have gelled. But, strangely, it did.

At this point, Reynolds changes his focus to the US. While the story of the New York Dolls seems to fit in fine, his attempt to also include the work of Wayne (later Jayne) County just seems to derail the proceedings. To this reader, it just seemed very out of place.

As glam started on its inevitable down-slide, there were still some interesting acts joining the scene. Cockney Rebel, Sparks, Queen and even Be-Bop Deluxe got their fingers in the glam pie.

For my money, this would have been a logical point at which the story (and book) should end. However, Reynolds decided to explore the world of post-glam without really calling it that.

He continues to explore the work of Bowie right up to the (literal) end as well as including artists such as Heavy Metal Kids, The Tubes, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Ultravox. While stories on these people do have their own interest, it seems like the subject for another book.

The final chapter of the book is Aftershocks which focuses on “Glam Echoes.” This section carries on right up to the death of David Bowie in January 2016. It encompasses everybody from PiL to Prince to Grace Jones to The Smiths to Kate Bush to Lady Gaga. Unfortunately, it just feels like adding some extra padding to the story and once again feels like it belongs in another book.

Overall, I did enjoy the content of the book which actually dealt with glam rock. It was well researched and presented. However, I did feel that the diversions from the main theme did the topic a disservice. This is a book that wants to be two books combined into one. If it had been two separate books, I likely would have had enough interest to purchase the second one as a stand-alone volume. But, in the context of a single volume, it did make for a bit of a schizophrenic reading experience.

Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth

Hot on the heels of Jon Savage’s book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded comes another book which focuses on a specific year. David Hepworth’s new book is entitled Never a Dull Moment – 1971: The Year That Rock Exploded. Whereas both of these books share a similar format in that the months are used as the twelve chapter of the books, that is where much of the similarity ends.

Both writers present stories about music of the year within a framework consisting of the cultural, social and political climate of the time. However, Savage’s book is around 25% music and 75% social conditions contrasted with Hepworth’s 90% music and 10% cultural framework. (For a more in depth look at Jon Savage’s book, please check out my article elsewhere on this blog.)

For his book, Hepworth generally begins each chapter with an overview of the times. This is followed by several stories about artists, songs, albums, producers etc… on whom he focuses his direct attention.

He begins his journey into the year by relating the fact that it began with the official dissolution of The Beatles. So, 1971 was the first “post-Beatles” year after the conclusion of the ’60s.

Since Carole King’s Tapestry was one of the biggest breakouts of the year, he explores her place in the blossoming world of the singer/songwriters of the year. These include people like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and Carly Simon. He also talks about one of the most enduring figures of the time who made little inroads in the way of popularity at the time – Nick Drake.

By way of the Rolling Stones, he relates stories about the release of Sticky Fingers as well as the band’s excursion to France to record the following year’s sprawling double album release – Exile on Main Street.

The state of music coming from the African American community is explored with tales of Motown label boss Berry Gordy Jr. and his stable of artists including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He also writes about Isaac Hayes as well as American TV host/producer Don Cornelius who brought Soul Train into the living rooms of the youth.

Producers like Ken Scott and Glyn Johns hook up with David Bowie and The Who respectively and breed the top albums Hunky Dory and Who’s Next. These were both milestones in the careers of the artists in 1971.

We also learn how producer Tom Dowd convinced the Allman Brothers Band to ditch the distracting horn section which was being used during their series of dates at the Fillmore East. This helped the band turn the corner and produce their double live LP set At Fillmore East which is still regarded as a classic today.

There are tales of Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, Harry Nilsson, Don McLean, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, The Beach Boys, T. Rex, Big Star, Rod Stewart, Carpenters and even a name-check for German Krautrock pioneers Can.

Festivals were also the order of the day in 1971 as the long-lived Glastonbury Festival got its start. There are also other tales of (much) less successful events such as the Weeley Festival and the disastrous Celebration of Life Festival in Louisiana.

1971 was also the year that the first rock concert charity event was organized by George Harrison. The ups and downs of this new type of venture venture are examined.

Reading through this book reminds the reader about so many watershed moments that occurred in the music world at the beginning of the 1970s. To a generation accustomed to auditioning the latest sounds via the internet with the click of a mouse, these times music seem like some ancient distant land. Music fans used to find themselves reading about interesting music and, if they were lucky, being able to catch some of the sounds on an adventurous underground FM radio station. It was a time when people congregated at record stores and took in the artwork and liner notes of the LPs filling the bins.

I was there… and it was damn fun!

Classic Rock? In my day it was called New Releases! 

 

 

 

1966 by Jon Savage

For hit latest tome, British music writer Jon Savage has chosen to zoom in on the year 1966. The reason for this is revealed in the subtitle – The Year the Decade Exploded. That’s a pretty  bold statement. So, the question is – Does he have the evidence to back it up?

The book is presented in a series of twelve chapters which each represent a month as it progresses through the year. If you were expecting a book about music, you will get that plus a great deal more.

Savage deconstructs events leading up to the year 1966 in order to put things into proper perspective. He divides his views over events happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Since the relationships in both the UK and the US can have a different effect, this approach works well as a way to compare and contrast the social, political and cultural developments.

As with many British writers, he spends some time relating the changes in the UK since the end of the Second World War. This was a touchstone for many areas of social progress for the last half of the twentieth century. By the 1960s, its atmosphere was seeming more distant to the current day youth and they had their own issues and problems to deal with.

In the area of music, many of the usual suspects are sited including  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Bob Dylan etc… He also includes Dusty Springfield, The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead, Motown, Stax plus a host of references to quite obscure groups like The Ugly’s.

Each chapter reveals more events which would influence the direction of music and possibly vice versa. There are stories about the CND movement in the UK as well as race demonstrations and riots in the US. The war in Vietnam was also a large factor in the ideologies of many people. The feelings about these and many other subjects managed to inform the music of the youth culture of the day.

He also talks about the fight for women’s rights and the fight to have gay culture recognized at a time when it was classified as illegal.

Of course, there is also quite a bit of discussion about the widening pervasiveness of drugs within the youth culture. This spans the use of amphetamines to pot to LSD. In fact, at the beginning of 1966, LSD was not an illegal substance in either the UK or US. However, this did change before the end of the year.

The juxtaposition of social and political events analysed alongside the music that was happening in the radio charts and in the clubs shows in interesting cultural correlation. At times it may seem difficult to distinguish which is having an influence on which.

In the end, Savage’s case is well stated. Through a vivid word painting of the times, he succeeds in creating a portrait of a year which hold a special place within an era.

 

 

 

Patti Smith – M Train

PattiSmith-book-MTrain

I think that I probably heard about Patti Smith around a year before she released here debut LP – Horses. It wasn’t long after that point that I saw her in concert at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit. It inspired me to track down a copy of her limited run single which was released some time before – Hey Joe / Piss Factory (Mer Records, 1,500 copies) – which also featured Television guitarist Tom Verlaine. I also bought her poetry books like Babel.

Her last book – Just Kids – was about her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who photographed Patti for the cover of Horses). M Train is a different animal to that tome.

In her latest book, Patti relates stories from various  moments in her life. She jumps around from event to event not taking any chronological approach. During the course of the many chapters, Mapplethorpe does not get a single mention… although Gumby does (really!).

Here, Patti talks about hanging around her favourite haunt – Cafe Ino – where she ponders life and jots down notes. During the course of the book, she travels around the globe both on her own and with others including her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith (of MC5 fame). She talks of her life with Fred in Detroit and her travels with him.

Much of the time, Patti is fascinated with the lives and deaths of numerous writers. This brings her on journeys around the world including Japan.

She also speaks of being involved with a rather secret society called the Continental Drift Club. It seems to be fine to reveal its secret nature since it is now defunct.

She talks about finding and purchasing a rather dilapidated property on Rockaway Beach. This event turns out to be rather bittersweet since it was one of the few properties in the area to survive a strike by Hurricane Sandy.

Patti relates all of her stories in a breezy manner which draws the reader into her often fascinating life adventures. Another excellent read, indeed.

PattiSmith-HeyJoe-Mer-US

 

Sandy Denny: Remembered Again

SandyDenny-book-IveAlwaysKeptaUnicorn

Sandy Denny was one of the richest voices to come out of the British music scene during the 1960s and ’70s. She was a person who was much admired and respected within her area of folk and folk-rock music. Unfortunately, at the time of her death in 1978 at the age of 31, the promise of her hard work seemed to never be fully realized.

Mick Houghton’s new book about the late British singer brings together impressive amounts of information which help to gain an insight into the events which shaped her path through her musical career.

Many surviving members of her inner circle of friends and fellow performers have been interviewed to provide an insight into her rise and fall. These include people like Richard and Linda Thompson, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Renbourn and members of Fairport Convention. Archival interviews with many other people including her late parents are also mined for extra depth into her character.

Denny began singing in folk clubs when just barely into her mid-teens. She sang what were called floor spots. These were performances by young hopefuls whereby they could sing and play a few songs without having yet achieved the status of being a credited performer on the main stage. Eventually, she did move onto that stage where she succeeded in attracting the attention of the audience and other folk musicians.

The story traces her first recordings with other musicians such as Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo to her move to join the Strawbs with Dave Cousins. Of course, the thing that may be of most interest to many people was her joining Fairport Convention as a replacement for singer Judy Dyble.

Her days in and out of Fairport are covered in lengthy detail and bring the experience to vivid life. This includes such events as the horrific van crash which took the life of drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s then girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Fortunately, Denny was travelling in another van with Trevor Lucas and his bandmates from the group Eclection. However, that did not prevent her from feeling the scars of the tragic event.

Houghton artfully weaves the story dealing with Denny’s involvement with Fairport Convention, her departure to start her group Fotheringay and her time as a solo recording artist.

Her personal life and relationships are also covered in great detail. Both that personal life and her musical life were often victims to her own emotional ups and downs. Bouts of insecurity often seemed to derail her attempts to keep things both musical and personal on a steady track. The addition of heavy drinking and cocaine use also served to keep things off a productive path.

I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn (a line from Denny’s song entitled Solo) is a well documented and well paced book which helps to put Sandy Denny’s life and career into perspective nearly forty years after her death from a fall down the stairs.

This is essential reading for any fan of British folk music from that era.

(I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn by Mick Houghton is published by Faber & Faber, London) 

Future Days by David Stubbs

FutureDays-book

Subtitled “Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany” this book takes the reader on a journey through the heady days of the German experimental music scene from the late sixties into the seventies.

Stubbs begins with a lengthy prologue which traces the social developments of the country through the 20th century. This is done to provide a perspective on what was to come after the Second World War.

After he has established the state of the minds of the German youth through the sixties, he then relates the stories behind the major groups who began creating experimental music.

Full chapters are devoted to some of the best known bands in what was termed “Krautrock” such as Amon Duul, Can, Kraftwerk and Faust. He later explores the “scenes” happening in areas such as Berlin.

He finishes by discussing newer music as well as the influence of the German music on specific musicians (David Bowie) and musical scenes (post punk).

For those not intimately familiar with this music, it may serve as a good introduction to stir up some curiosity. For those of us who are already quite well-versed in the genre, there are still some facts that are revealed that may be new to us.